USA 2001 : Bill Paxton : 100 mins

‘Think not that I came come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father.
And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.’
Matthew 10:34-6

A man named Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) arrives at a Texas FBI station demanding to speak to Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe). He says he can identify the murderer – known as the “God’s Hands” killer – who has been terrorising the state for months. His tale begins in 1979, when ‘Dad’ Meiks (director Paxton) is a caring, widowed father bringing up his two young sons in a small town. All seems fine – until one night he wakes up Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) to tell them they’ve been chosen by God as foot-soldiers in His battle against evil: the family must destroy the demons who walk the earth in human form. While Adam embraces the ‘mission’ with gung-ho zeal, Fenton suspects Dad has lost his mind – Fenton’s unease turning to sheer terror as Dad starts wielding his axe against the very human-looking ‘demons’ he drags into his basement.

Anyone who only knows Paxton as the ordinary-Joe star of Apollo 13 and Twister is in for a shock with Frailty. You’d have to go back to Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter to find the last time an actor unleashed such a spectacularly dark and gothic directorial debut on an unsuspecting public (though Bob Balaban’s 1989 mom-and-pop-are-cannibals cult horror-comedy Parents comes pretty close.) Laughton was famously never trusted with the job again – but Paxton may not be about to suffer the same fate, as Frailty has done sufficiently well on limited US release.

But it’s a miracle the film secured any kind of domestic distribution at all, so savage is its satirical onslaught against the most sacred cows of Middle America: religion, respect for authority, and the unquestioning father-worship that afflicts so many mainstream Hollywood releases. It’s all done with a dead-straight face – so straight, in fact, that (as with Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers) many viewers have missed the satire altogether and taken events at face value.

The clue lies in the extremity of scriptwriter Brent Hanley’s imagination – as when Dad is amazed to see the underside of the car he’s working on suddenly expand into a cavernously vast cathedral dome from which a Wagnerian, bearded angel descends, brandishing a colossal sword of vengeance. It’s the film’s only use of special effects – Paxton barely spills a drop of blood as he tells his gory tale by keeping all the actual violence is kept off-screen. This is just one reason why Frailty could quite easily end up being approved of by the Moral Majority bible-bashing types it so skilfully lampoons.

Paxton follows in the footsteps of legendary B-movie horror auteur Larry Cohen (specifically, Frailty combines aspects of Cohen’s TV show The Invaders with his 1975 film Demon aka God Told Me To) by exploring wild, genuinely subversive ideas within a genuinely scary format. Even the most hard-boiled of horror fans may find themselves hiding their eyes at especially tense moments. There are, perhaps inevitably, the odd rough edges here and there: the stunningly unexpected final twist, and the torrent of information that accompanies it, are a little too much to take on board all in one go. In terms of originality and sheer audacity, however, Frailty has no competition as the year’s best shocker – and may well be the greatest serial-killer movie ever made.

29th August, 2002
(seen 22nd, UGC Edinburgh – Edinburgh Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.